Octavia Yearwood has dedicated her life to mentoring and supporting young people who have experienced adversity. Yearwood is no stranger to adversity herself, having spent several years in foster care. Now, she’s using her knowledge, experience, and expertise to mentor teens in youth prisons in her program, “How the Hell Did You Do That?!”

The supplementary program is based off of Yearwood’s 2017 interactive book with the same title. The book’s goal is to help young people overcome trauma and adversity by using critical thinking, coping skills, literacy, and social and emotional learning, and is used as a key tool in the program. Though Yearwood works with teens who are often offhandedly labeled as “problematic” or “at-risk,” Yearwood prefers to use the term “trauma-sensitive youth” as a way to center their background and resilience.

“You do not need to have a degree to be compassionate and to know and understand and empathize with a young person,” Yearwood said. “I think that people don’t tap into their human side or their childhood self enough so that they can relate [to young people]. People always think, I didn’t have this shared experience with this young person, so I can’t relate. But if you really just get past that and dig a little deeper, you realize that you have so much insight to offer young people who are experiencing traumatic childhood experiences.”

Yearwood partnered with Dr. Lauren Shure of Barry University to create the curriculum for the interactive program. Shure is the program’s lead mental health specialist, and is considered by Yearwood to be a “vital anchor” to the program’s success. The pair initially piloted the program for two years in Miami, Florida, before officially launching it in two New York juvenile detention centers for young men—Horizon Juvenile Detention Center in the Bronx and Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brooklyn—in July. The program is largely remote, so there was no need to adjust it to adhere to COVID-19 protocols. Though the curriculum isn’t gender-specific, Yearwood says she was especially excited to work with young men.

“When I think of organizations that really work for young people, they often focus on young girls,” Yearwood said. “It was really awesome to be able to have a moment to really focus on young men … I think we don’t give young men enough credit for their openness and for their ability to be tender and vulnerable when you give them space.”

Any program in juvenile detention centers must first be cleared by administrators, and fortunately for Yearwood, she had an acquaintance working at a detention center who had read the book and championed for the program to be implemented. Once the program is cleared, the facilities lease the program for one year. Next, staff is trained onsite by Yearwood on the material within the book and how to navigate discussions.

“I train them on the program so they can start to understand and prepare themselves for the shifts and the changes that those young people are going to face when they’re reading this book,” Yearwood said. “The program is going to make them be introspective and make them think about their past and future, both of which can be really hard and intense, especially for a young person still navigating and learning who they are.”

Once the program is picked up at a site, participation is required. The program only accepts 30 participants per 10-week cycle, and roughly three to four cycles are doable in a one-year period. Participants engage in weekly chapter reads and are expected to answer questions and prompts at the end of each section of the book. The questions and prompts cover topics related to family relationships, forgiveness, self-esteem, and self-image. Though she isn’t in the room during the discussions, Yearwood still finds a way to connect with the teens. The participants are shown a video of Yearwood answering each of the questions in the book, where she opens up about herself and her personal experiences.

“I wanted to make sure that I created a program that didn’t just give these kids a book and say, ‘Y’all go ahead and do your required reading,’” Yearwood said. “If we know anything about self work, we know that if we can avoid it, we will. That’s why you have people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s still working through problems they had when they were 15 years old.”

The answers to the workbook questions are sent over to the mentors on Yearwood’s team, who reflect on the responses and write a letter back about what they interpreted from the answers in that chapter. Since youth counselors often deal with heavy workloads and oversee hundreds of kids at a time, Yearwood wanted to ensure participants in her program received more one-on-one attention. The program provides one mentor for every three participants, so each teen is able to receive personalized feedback and attention throughout the program.

“[The mentor’s response] could be something like, ‘What’s up, Tommy? I loved the way you talked about yourself when you described yourself as brilliant and bright. I used to find it hard to find positive words for myself,’” Yearwood said. “They’ll also give them some advice and some encouragement to go on throughout the week.”

Mentorship is one of the key aspects of the program, and helps teens receive support as they learn more about themselves and their ambitions. Each mentor is vetted and trained under Yearwood’s company, Team Ohhh. Mentors are chosen carefully based on their background and are paired up with a detainee of their same race so they can better relate to the teens’ experiences.

“If kids see themselves in you and can relate to you, they can expand on themselves,” Yearwood said.

If a mentor suspects their mentee needs additional help based on their responses, they’ll schedule some time for them to speak to a mental health specialist who can address their needs. The team’s mental health specialists also gather data about how each teen responds to each chapter in order to improve the effectiveness of the program and provide more detailed feedback at the end of the 10 weeks.

So far, the program is only offered in two juvenile detention centers in New York, but Yearwood’s 2021 goal is to implement the program in at least six detention centers. Her long-term goal is to expand it into every school and juvenile detention center in the nation. In the meantime, she has some advice for young people who feel tossed aside or are experiencing hardship:

“Adversity births legends,” Yearwood said. “Be as bold as you can and don’t ask for permission to be great.”

Carolyn Copeland is the News Editor at Prism. Her written work can be found in the Washington Post, HuffPost, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Palo Alto Weekly, Daily Kos, Popsugar, The...